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What Sort of Social Theory Would Benefit the Sociology of Religion?

Steve Bruce


This chapter considers the nature of social theory and its use in British studies of religion. It also offers what I hope are some improving suggestions. The British focus is deliberate. In part it arises from a desire to concentrate on material with which the reader may be familiar. In part it stems from a suspicion that the sociology of religion in Britain is somewhat unusual. Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim all studied religion and that heritage ensures the sociology of religion an honourable position in the British sociology canon but there is currently little British sociological interest in religion.[1] From its inception the British Sociological Association's Religion Study Group has always attracted a large number of non-sociologists to its annual conferences and a very large proportion of the empirical studies of contemporary religion in Britain are the work of people who are not social scientists. This impression can be quantified quite accurately. Linda Woodhead and Rebecca Catto's edited volume Religion and Change in Modern Britain (2012) includes the work of 36 researchers, many of them reporting on projects conducted under the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society programme. Most of the contributors are familiar names from the Journal of Contemporary Religion and BSA Sociology of Religion conferences. Of the 36, 16 are theologians by current profession or by training, only six are unambiguously social scientists, and only three of them are sociologists.[2] Of itself there is nothing wrong with this but it does have consequences for the theme of this collection and for my comments on the use of social theory. As will become clear, I find it difficult to separate the narrow question of how we use social theory from the wider issue of how we improve research which uses social scientific concepts and methods but is produced by scholars whose interest in social science is secondary.

Inter-disciplinary research is often excellent and I am not particularly precious about the discipline of sociology. However, academic disciplines are not merely flags of convenience. They have discrete bodies of knowledge, repertoires of questions and specialist skills, and the three are necessarily linked. In order to know certain things one has to ask certain things and be able to do certain things. For example, people who have not been trained to design and manage attitude surveys are more likely inadvertently to produce unrepresentative results than people who have taken quantitative social research methods courses. To give a recent example: a major project to assess the religious beliefs of English university students found over half describing themselves as religious or spiritual and just over a quarter describing themselves as Christian. Of those, almost three-quarters had attended church regularly. That is, some 18 per cent of students were regular churchgoers. This was presented as evidence of the growing popularity of religion among young people. And it would indeed be a remarkable finding were it not for the fact that it was based on a response rate of only 9.4 per cent to an email questionnaire sent to a sample of universities which included a disproportionate number of former Church of England training colleges. The students who were invited to complete the questionnaires were randomly selected but the colleges were not representative. It is almost certain that students who are religious or spiritual were more likely to respond than students who were indifferent or hostile to religion. Even worse, there was nothing to prevent early adopters (such as members of religious student societies) encouraging their friends to complete the form. The results still have considerable value for understanding those who completed the forms but they can tell us nothing about English university students in general.[3]

Of course the sorts of questions best answered by social science research do not exhaust what is interesting about religion. However, as this is an extension of a lecture given to a conference organized by the British Sociological Association,

I will assume that, whatever their disciplinary background, its readers share a common interest in those aspects of religion that are best addressed through social science research. That is, our common subject matter is found in such topics as the social causes of church growth and decline, the social transmission of religious beliefs and practices, the social correlates and processes of religious conversion, patterned social differences in religious activity, and features and consequences of religious organizations. Although they require some knowledge of the content of religious traditions in order to identify salient differences in what is being explained, their currency is not the legal tender of religious exegesis or apologetics. So I can summarize my concern in this question: how can social theory best be used to advance the social scientific study of contemporary religious phenomenon?

  • [1] I apologize to any colleagues I have forgotten but, as of 2013, I can think of only one professor in a British sociology department whose primary field is the sociology of religion.
  • [2] The breakdown is as follows: Theology/Divinity/Arts-based Religious Studies 16; Education 4; Sociology 3; History 2; and Law 2. Two contributors are church officials. Demography, Geography, Journalism, Architecture, Politics and Philosophy have 1 representative. The Civil Service and Anthropology have a half each. Two of the contributors now hold posts with sociology in the title but are theologians by training.
  • [3] The project in question is Christianity and the University Experience in Contemporary England. Results are from the project website: [accessed: 10 January 2011]. Of the four researchers two are theologians and two were trained in an inter-disciplinary religious studies department. None has any formal training in social science.
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